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Curbed New York’s 12 best longreads of 2016

Stories of the last gas man of Lower Manhattan, reshaping a former Coast Guard base, infiltrating a notoriously private park, and more

From “The last days of Admiral's Row's stately, neglected mansions”
| Nathan Kensinger

The long weekend is here; It’s time to catch up on all of the good reading that’s slipped through the cracks in 2016, or return to a few of your favorites. In that spirit, we’ve gathered a few of our best-loved features of the year. From stories of how nature has reclaimed a Sandy-damaged stretch of Staten Island, a determined mission to infiltrate Manhattan’s notoriously private park, a young architect who envisions a better future for New York’s public housing tenants, and more. These are 12 of our favorite New York City longreads.

A day in the life of Lower Manhattan’s last gas man by Peter Moskowitz

The pace at which change occurs in New York City makes everything feel like it could be gone tomorrow, and so the mundane actions of businesses that many people take for granted—the dry cleaners, corner bodegas, and the gas stations—become suddenly memorable. It makes Tommy Hondros’ M&M-scanning and bill-breaking and small-talking come with a kind of gravitas, like they represent something more than the everyday tasks of a gas station owner.

And they kind of do, because Hondros plans on being the last gas man standing in New York. "If I close, where are they going to go?" Hondros said. "You don’t know how many people thank me. They call me a lifesaver."

Mobil Mart 8th Avenue Gas Station NYC Photo by Scott Lynch

Four years after Sandy, Staten Island's shoreline is transformed by Nathan Kensinger

As the houses came down, the land opened up for the first time in over 100 years. Where human families once lived, fields of wildflowers now stretched out towards the ocean, and other animals began to build their homes. Geese hatched their eggs in empty lots, teaching their goslings to swim in potholes. Deer came out from the woods to feed in overgrown backyards. Feral cats sunned themselves for hours in the middle of empty roads. Possums strolled the crumbling sidewalks.

In the four years since Hurricane Sandy, no neighborhood in New York City has changed as radically as Oakwood Beach in Staten Island. Rows of houses and apartments once lined the streets of this quiet oceanfront neighborhood, but most of those buildings are now gone, either destroyed by the storm or torn down by the government as part of a "managed retreat" from the rising seas.

Meet the young architect who’s helping design NYCHA’s future by Emily Nonko

Six months in, she's made serious progress. She plans to release her first set of design guidelines, which cover the rehabilitation for existing buildings, this August. (She has yet to tackle design considerations for new market-rate construction.) Her guidelines have taken NYCHA’s sustainability agenda, released this spring, heavily into account. And while such guidelines will offer broad tactics in regulating NYCHA’s approach toward building rehabilitation, Jae is also thinking on a micro scale.

On Governors Island, the world’s smartest hill by Karrie Jacobs

I ask Geuze, "Why hills?" His response is to deny that the four landforms known as Grassy, Slide, Discovery, and Outlook even exist. In his mind, they are indistinguishable from all the smaller undulations with which he’s covered 40 acres of island. "I think we have a rolling landscape," he insists.

We tend to forget that the tightly gridded, skyscraper-packed isle of Manhattan (of which Governors Island is officially a part) was once a verdant natural place. The Lenape tribe who inhabited the island before the Europeans came along called it the "Island of Many Hills."

Iwan Baan/Courtesy West8

Farewell to the Four Seasons by Alexandra Lange

I mention the matchbooks and coat check, menus and place card, stationery and cocktail napkins not to tell you that my career as design historian often feels like a research project into the lives my grandparents lived, but to point out that this ephemera was seen as worth writing away for in 1960, and seen as worth saving for 50 years. And it is perhaps the least famous element of the Four Seasons restaurant design. What will be sold in Wright’s July 26 auction are many more famous items, from custom brass-topped Eero Saarinen tables to the silver-plated footed bread bowls designed by L. Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable, each as considered as Antonucci’s trees.

New York Narratives by Zoe Rosenberg

There’s something about the experience of growing up in New York City—riding the subway to school as a child, or playing tag in the street instead of a backyard—that’s unlike so many other places. Here, you’ll meet nine New Yorkers of varying ages and backgrounds, who have very different perspectives on their hometown but are united in one common theme: they care deeply about this city and its future. They love where they live.

New York Narratives lead Khushbu Shah

How to get into Gramercy Park by Angela Serratore

While I understand the idea that the park, founded in 1833, isn’t a park so much as it is a very nice front lawn for the lucky residents of the square, I also like to read quietly outside and I’m annoyed that I can’t do it there. I can, however, peer through the wrought-iron fence on my lunch break and silently seethe with class rage, like a more selfish Bernie Sanders, which is what I’m doing when I hear Arlene Harrison, president and founder of the Gramercy Park Block Association and one of the five trustees of Gramercy Park, call my name. Arlene has agreed to use her key and her time to take me inside the park, for which I’m extremely grateful, because it’s actually pretty hard to sneak in.

Before the World Trade Center by James Nevius

To New York’s business and political elite, the start of the World Trade Center construction heralded a new chapter in the city’s story; few paid any attention to the fact that they were shutting the book on nearly a century of rich heritage.

In truth, the area around the World Trade Center had been in upheaval for decades. Just south of Radio Row had once stood "Little Syria," a close-knit community of Arab shops, tenements, and churches that thrived along Washington Street. A generation before the World Trade Center’s construction, Little Syria had been destroyed by Robert Moses and the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

Library of Congress

From house of worship to house of sin: The history of Chelsea’s Limelight building by Priya Krishna

The building is often identified by locals and tour guides as one of New York’s cursed spaces. Even before its 1980s heyday, the spot has been plagued by problems (financial, social, and otherwise) that have been the downfall of many a company trying to establish itself in the historic space. But looked at another way, the building is a time capsule. In its long history, you can follow the rise of the rave, the rehabilitation of the city, the popularity of the boutique fitness craze, and the trend toward atmosphere-centric dining.

How one NYC design firm brings our best historic buildings back to life by Amy Plitt

Even though the projects that EverGreene works on are different in size and scope, they're linked by a common theme: a deep reverence for the significance of these buildings—not just historically, though that's important too, but how they fit in within their communities. "In a country that is very homogenized now, what distinguishes any place from another is usually the physical landscape and the built environment," Greene says. "It represents what transpired there."

The last days of Admiral's Row's stately, neglected mansions by Nathan Kensinger

Although they had been abandoned for over 40 years and left to become overgrown ruins, the officers’ quarters remained an irreplaceable part of Brooklyn’s history until their very end, and it is highly unlikely that the chain grocery store replacing them will become an equally important historic structure over the next century. "This was an amenity that was publicly owned, and the government is now spending money to flatten it," says Simeon Bankoff. "We’ve got to learn from that. We can’t allow that to happen."

Photo by Nathan Kensinger

A walking tour of 1866 New York by James Nevius

Up to this point on my walk, with the exception of the Astor Hotel, the New York Herald building, and the old fountain in City Hall Park, everything on Wetherby’s itinerary still stands. Miller’s book would have shown me some banks and newspaper offices that are now gone, but it’s still remarkable that what was considered noteworthy in the Financial District 150 years ago are the same sites people visit today.

Head this way for the best of Curbed’s west coast longreads.

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